The next time you go in for surgery, you might come out thanking a crab. New research from the Harvard Wyss Institute shows that chitosan, a fancy term for crustacean goo, can be used as a biodegradable glue to heal wounds and patch surgical incisions.
Liquid chitossan, a wonder material that can bond tissues and degrades naturally in the human body. Image: Wyss Institute at Harvard University
Scientists have been tinkering with chitosan, which is derived from the molecule chitin found in the crunchy shells of crustaceans and insects, on and off several years. In 2014, Harvard bioengineers Donald Ingber and Javier Fernandez developed "Shrilk", a chitosan-based plastic substitute that's non-toxic and fully-degradable. That same year, engineers in Oregon built a device that seals gunshot wounds in 15 seconds using a blood-clotting, chitosan-coated sponge.
Now, Ingber and Fernandez are turning their attention to chitosan's proven medical properties to develop patches and sprays that can be used to fix up a broken body.
In a new study published in the journal Tissue Engineering, the team shows how chitosan, when mixed with an off-the-shelf enzyme call transglutaminase (TG), effectively seals puncture wounds in pig intestines and lungs. To treat even larger injuries, the team formulated a chitosan-based foam that seals a wound cavity and keeps it clean (chitosan also has anti-microbial properties) until the patient can be moved to a hospital.
"Right now our approach is very general, but we could theoretically take this concept and adapt it into almost any form imaginable for a broad number of possible uses," Fernandez said in a statement.
In other words, in a few years doctors may be using chitosan all over the place, from tooth extractions to open heart surgery. Lives saved and wounds healed, all thanks to a little crab goo.